With Gizmodo, Peter Rojas set a state for talking about technology and gadgets like human beings. That would be a nice feat once, but he did it again with Engadget, Joystiq and gdgt. Now, he’s leaving Verizaol* for an entrepreneur-in-residence position at startup birthing matrix and investment firm betaworks.
Rojas came to Aol via the acquisition of gdgt, which betaworks invested in early on. I spoke to both he and betaworks CEO John Borthwick a bit about his motivations for the move, what he’ll be doing and betaworks plans for the west coast.
“I’d been planning to move to San Francisco in July, but hadn’t intended to switch jobs at the same time; my original plan had been to continue to lead Alpha from here,” says Rojas.
The Alpha group is an experimental arm of Aol that makes internal and external products designed to keep the company innovating. It’s launched a couple of consumer-facing products so far including Pip! and Starlike. Rojas says that his Alpha co-director (and gadget co-founder) Ryan Block will take over sole directorship, along with a leadership team that includes director of design Michael Cosentino, director of technology Evan Fribourg, and product director Drew Lesicko.
“They are all insanely talented and will definitely keep things moving forward,” said Rojas.
“Having Peter help Ryan Block and I get our Alpha group off the ground has been exceptionally valuable for Aol,” said Aol President of Media Brands Luke Beatty in a statement. “Peter is one of the most strategic savvy people in our industry. He’s a pro. I know Betaworks will grow with Peter representing them in the valley. No doubt.”
Verizon, said Rojas, was not his reason for leaving.
“Verizon buying Aol wasn’t a factor in my decision to leave. If anything the incentives to stay only increased after the acquisition, especially since Verizon seems pretty committed to keeping Alpha going.
“But a few weeks ago I was catching up with John Borthwick to tell him about my move and it led to him asking me if I’d like to join betaworks as an EIR to help out with seed investing and serve as sort of an ambassador to the West Coast. I’d been thinking for a while that about moving into investing, this seemed like a perfect way to test the waters there and get to work with a bunch of people I think are awesome.”
The deal seems like a way for betaworks to get a solid toehold on investing in the SF area and the West Coast at large. Rojas says that’s definitely the plan. “I think that awareness is lower than it should be and that is something I plan to work on.”
Betaworks currently has around 109 active investments out of 125 total since the firm was started. That includes recent bets like Giphy, Medium and Product Hunt. It also builds and buys companies, including the reborn Digg, Dots, Chartbeat, Instapaper and Socialflow.
Though its investment arm is only a portion of what betaworks does, it has still managed a 5.65x return, says Borthwick, making its results solid enough to compare to a similar-sized seed fund. Out of those investments, only about 25 percent are in California, and they’re all in the north, near San Francisco. betaworks has yet to invest in a SoCal company. The majority of those investments have been in the city proper.
“I’ve always been a big fan of what John and his crew have been doing there,” Rojas said in an email response to a question about why he felt betaworks was the right place to be.
“Betaworks’ model of taking new product ideas and getting them out to market quickly to figure out whether they’re viable or not was a huge inspiration for what we’ve been trying to do with Alpha,” he said. “I’ve also just generally been close to them over the years. I’ve been friends with John since 2003, when he was working at Time Warner and I was editing Gizmodo (there’s a funny story about us getting booed on stage at a Time Warner corporate off-site), and betaworks was an investor in gdgt — both our seed and A rounds.”
The story, by the way, was that Rojas showed up on stage at the offsite with a bunch of video-playing devices loaded up with Time Warner content like HBO shows and movies. The only problem? Time Warner didn’t have an official digital content distribution arm at the time, so Rojas’ source was pretty much the same as all of ours was at the time: le torrents. The reception was…not warm. Word is they eventually got over it.
This isn’t the first time that betaworks has experimented with the EIR format. Josh Miller of branch was a part-time EIR before he went to Facebook and Andrew McLaughlin joined as an EIR after Tumblr — eventually moving to a partner position and taking on the CEO role at Digg.
EIR roles can be pretty loosey goosey when it comes to defined goals. I asked Rojas exactly what it means in this case.
“It means I’ll be bringing my mix of entrepreneurial, product, and editorial experience to bear helping betaworks looking for new investments and working with portfolio companies,” he said. “EIR roles are by definition transitional, but that doesn’t mean I am going to be hanging out for a few months while I figure out what comes next. I recognize that in a lot of ways I’m starting from scratch and I’m going to have to work really hard to make the most of the opportunity.”
Borthwick says that they’ve been trying to make this happen for two years. When GDGT was acquired, they talked about an EIR position, but the timing wasn’t right. This time, it was.
“Having somebody who is based on the west coast to support betaworks, evangelize, act as an ambassador and find new investments makes sense, and I can’t think of anyone better than Peter.”
*I’m not sure what the proper name is so that’s what I’m using until a spokesperson corrects me. Oh, and Verizaol owns TechCrunch.